HTML5 Takes the Lead on Android Devices

Feb 28, 2012


Update: JW7 is now available. Check it out here.

Even before Adobe’s announcement back in November that it would cease supporting Flash on Android devices, it was becoming clear to us at LongTail Video that the JW Player would need to shift its focus on Android devices towards HTML5 mode. We took the first step with the release of the 5.9 player, which now embeds itself in HTML5 mode on all Android devices by default, since our testing has shown that Android is fully capable of playing HTML5 video. But there are several reasons why HTML5 should be the delivery mode of choice on Android, with or without Flash. This blog post will attempt to address a few of them.

Limited Future Support for Flash

This one should be obvious, so we’ll get it out of the way. After the current generation of Android devices running Froyo (2.2), Gingerbread (2.3), Honeycomb (3.x) and Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0) are either phased out or upgraded to future Android versions, Flash will no longer be supported in the browser.

Video Player Behavior on Mobile Devices

It is difficult to put forth a general rule for how video players should behave on mobile platforms. In fact, the term “mobile” is itself too general in this context, since viewing a web page containing video is a very different experience depending on whether you are viewing on a smartphone with limited screen real estate, versus watching on a tablet with more room for your fingers to interact with the content.

If you load the JW Player on an Android smartphone in Flash mode, you will get the same version of the player you would have gotten had you loaded it on a desktop browser. However, everything will be scaled to the size of your phone’s screen, including all of the button controls. Not only would the buttons be hard to press, but they wouldn’t really make sense in the context of watching video on a phone. Conversely, the player’s HTML5 mode relies on the phone’s own built-in video controls, which are optimized for the screen size. Additionally, HTML5 video will always play in full-screen mode on Android smartphones, which is a much better experience.

Viewing video in a browser on a tablet isn’t as cut-and-dry of an issue. The screen is larger, so it is possible to have a usable video playing inside of the page content. This can be done in both Flash and HTML5 modes, so the decision of which to use comes down to performance (despite its reputation, Flash doesn’t perform that poorly on most Android devices when it comes to video) and usability (the built-in HTML5 controls are optimized for touchscreens, while the Flash controls would need to be modified to work well on touch devices).

Lastly, we feel that it is important to provide a consistent experience across all mobile devices, not just Android devices. Switching to HTML5 playback for Android means that users on both Android and iOS devices will see the same things:

  • Fullscreen-only playback (on phones)
  • No overlays on top of the video player while a video is playing
  • Built-in touch screen controls

Flash Embedding on Mobile Browsers

One issue we’ve noticed with Flash for Android is that it “steals” interaction events from the browser. For example, if you’re scrolling down a page using the one-finger swipe gesture, and your finger happens to brush over a Flash element on the page, Flash will interpret this as a mouse click. In the case of the JW Player, the player will begin to play, when what you actually wanted to do was scroll down the page. Using native HTML5 elements eliminates this sort of behavior, since those elements distinguish between different types of gestures.

HTTP Live Streaming (HLS)

Beginning with Ice Cream Sandwich, Android devices will support HTTP Live Streaming (HLS), which has become the de facto standard for streaming video over HTTP. This is the same format which is used to stream video content to iOS devices. Unfortunately, HLS is not supported natively in the Flash player, making this another reason to favor HTML5 over Flash on Android. For an explanation of what HLS is and why it’s important, check out our blog post on the subject.

Android Support in the JW Player Going Forward

For all of the reasons described above, we feel that it is necessary to focus our Android development efforts on HTML5 and not Flash. Flash mode will still be used as a failover on Android devices which support it; for example, if your player configuration specifies an RTMP stream (which can’t be played in HTML5 mode), the Flash player will still be used. And if you disagree with our decision, you can still specify Flash as your primary renderer by setting the modes block in your player configuration. But we think you’ll find that for Android, HTML5 is the best way to go.